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Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (2003)

by John Garth

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365829,724 (3.98)27
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This was an utterly excellent book, following Tolkien's own biography and the development of his mythology with excellent detail and attention to nuance. I expect it's all but incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with The Silmarillion, but I've only read the first part of the Book of Lost Tales andI managed quite well. Insightful, interesting, and illuminating. Highly recommended. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Jan 18, 2014 |
J. R. R. Tolkien created the most detailed mythology of the twentieth century. But no mythology can exist in isolation; people won't understand it. It must have roots in human experience.

There are many books on Tolkien's sources, historical, folkloric, and philological. This book is rather different; it addresses a personal source: World War I. It also looks at his relationship with three other man of his age who called themselves the "TCBS." They were four bright literary men who set out to see the world in a new way (or, perhaps, revive an old way, but in any case, to shake things up).

And all four ended up as officers in World War I. Three served in the army; two were killed and Tolkien ended up the victim of disease.

This is the most detailed study of the TCBS and of Tolkien's war service now in print. It includes a careful attempt to show how Tolkien's early writings arose from the conditions of the time -- and looks at how these early influences led to his more mature writings. As such, it is perhaps of the greatest interest to the readers of The Silmarillion rather than The Lord of the Rings.

That the war was a great influence on Tolkien can hardly be denied. And this book brings that out. It is, perhaps, less successful at bringing out the full panorama of the war. Although it discusses the fates of Tolkien and his friends Gilson and Smith, there isn't much general perspective on the war, or even on the way the British army was organized, with the upper and middle classes supplying the officers and the lower classes the cannon fodder. And this matters, because the upper classes were by no means guaranteed to contain the brightest minds....

At the end, author Garth tries to sum it all up and show how the Great War influenced Tolkien's finished writings. Many will find this the most valuable part of the book. The rest, sadly, is neither fish nor fowl -- neither a "man in the trenches" view nor a full biography of Tolkien. Others have praised it highly, but I sometimes found myself lost. In the end, this is a piece of the puzzle of where Tolkien's writings came from. But the puzzle is much larger than this one piece. ( )
  waltzmn | Sep 21, 2013 |
I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings forty years ago or so. I have also watched the recent movie version of The Lord of the Rings. I am not really any kind of Tolkien fan. I liked those books well enough but just never chose to plunge in to any kind of serious study. My sweetheart recommended this book to me, and that mostly because of the focus on WW1.

Actually even more than WW1, this book focuses on a small circle of friends, formed in their teenage years, that included Tolkien. The core was just four young men. They surely had high ideals and high hopes, which were all quite badly treated by the war.

So the point of the book is to show how Tolkien expressed those ideals and their fate in the world through the legendary world he created. The focus is not on The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but on the early predecessors, even before the Silmarillion. Garth walks us though many of these stories in enough detail that one can follow along with no prior exposure to them, at least for the most part. From time to time I did start to feel a bit left out, as Garth shows how story elements foreshadowed later Tolkien works that I am not familiar with. But for the most part this book demand too much Tolkien-ology of its reader.

I must say that I think Garth is quite successful with his argument here, that Tolkien was not running away from the harsh reality of his time but rather presented it in a medium that allowed him to get his points across effectively. Garth puts Tolkien in the company of Milton and Blake - they all created fabulous epics to portray the crises of their times.

The crisis that Tolkien was confronting is one that we are still confronting, though probably we are now in a different phase of the progress of industrial domination. WW1 was probably the most dramatic rise of industrial might. E.g. the British fleet was converted to petroleum shortly before the war. WW2 must have been the triumph, with nuclear weapons etc. Now we are in the decline of industrial power, with the desperate struggle to maintain power that it entails. Maybe this makes Tolkien even more important today. Tolkien portrayed an alternative. Now that some alternative or other is becoming inevitable, not merely possible, our challenge is to choose, to steer our path toward some one of the better alternatives open to us. The noble virtues latent in the common man, this vision of Tolkien might show us a priceless vital way forward. ( )
2 vote kukulaj | Jul 6, 2012 |
Fills a gap in the understanding of J. R. R. Tolkien's works. ( )
  JNSelko | Jun 17, 2008 |
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In memory of
 
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 1892-1973
Christopher Luke Wiseman, 1893-1987
Robert Quilter Gilson, 1893-1916
Geoffrey Bache Smith, 1894-1916
 
TCBS
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Preface
 
This biographical study arose from a single observation: how strange it is that J. R. R. Tolkien should have embarked upon his monumental mythology in the midst of the First World War, the crisis of disenchantment that shaped the modern era.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0618331298, Hardcover)

Millions of new captives of the Lord of the Rings saga have been roped into J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world as the result of Peter Jackson’s three-part cinematic interpretation of the great 20th century fantasy. John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War will certainly captivate an elite segment of those recent converts, but it is written more for those who have long been enthralled by Middle-earth and its fantastic denizens. While many early readers found parallels between World War II and the Lord of the Rings fairy-tale, Garth reaches back to World War I to find the deep roots in Middle-earth. Prior to the Great War, Tolkien was a scholar with a deep passion for language and fables. In fact, he formed a literary circle with a few friends dubbed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Its members had the misfortune of coming of age just as the war was reaching a fevered pitch; Tolkien, a second lieutenant in the British army, survived the bloody Battle of the Somme, which took the lives of two of his closest friends. Garth adeptly chronicles how the devastation Tolkien witnessed helped shape the mythic tale that was already brewing in his mind. Written with a seriousness one associates with the time it chronicles, Tolkien and the Great War is a erudite but eminently readable exploration of how the harsh reality of the early 20th century colored one of the beloved fantasies of the modern era. --Steven Stolder

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:43 -0400)

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"J.R.R. Tolkien responded to critics who saw The Lord of the Rings as a reaction to the Second World War. Tolkien and the Great War tells for the first time the full story of how he embarked on the creation of Middle-Earth in his youth as the world around him was plunged into catastrophe. This biography reveals the horror and heroism that he experienced as a signals officer in the Battle of the Somme and introduces the circle of friends who spurred his mythology into life. It shows how, after two of these brilliant young men were killed, Tolkien pursued the dream they all shared by launching his epic of good and evil." "This is the first substantially new biography of Tolkien since 1977, meticulously researched and distilled from his personal wartime papers and a multitude of other sources." "John Garth argues that the foundation of tragic experience in the First World War is the key to Middle-Earth's enduring power. Tolkien used his mythic imagination not to escape from reality but to reflect and transform the cataclysm of his generation. While his contemporaries surrendered to disillusionment, he kept enchantment alive, reshaping an entire literary tradition into a form that resonates to this day."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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